Here I am in Amsterdam for the 5th year running early in the year. Why do I keep coming back? Because I love it! And short of travelling far and spending lots of money, there aren’t many options in January. Better to come to somewhere that’s great with lots of things to do and not worry too much about the weather than chance finding a pale shadow of warmth further south in a seaside resort that’s almost dead in the winter. Amsterdam is always alive and kicking. Even in January. But it has to be said that it’s less busy than later in the year, particularly spring – March and April – when tourists flock here to see the bulbs, all those ‘tulips from Amsterdam’. And that’s partly why I like to come now. It’s quiet and full of locals.
I don’t come to Amsterdam to sightsee, I come simply to be here. I’ve spent a lot of time in the city over more than 20 years, almost semi living here at one time, so there’s a wonderful sense of familiarity. I think places we return to over and over again imbed themselves in our psyche and just as people are drawn to always return to their home, the place they were born and brought up, so too we are drawn to the places we come to know well. Or we do when we love them.
So I’m here to wander, to stroll wherever my fancy takes me, take pot luck for lunch, as I did today, at a cafe I passed and liked the look of. A little formal ‘sightseeing’, ‘tourist’ activity will come in the shape of a visit to the Van Gogh Museum tomorrow, the first time in about 20 years, inspired to return by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s brilliant documentary on BBC2 TV last Thursday, STEALING VAN GOGH. And of course I have to visit my favourite haunts.
I’m staying in the lovely Hotel Estherea on Singel, Amsterdam’s oldest major canal, in a room with a view.
It was getting dark as I set off late afternoon to gently explore before eating. The lightest of rains hovered in the air – did I need an umbrella or not? – but as I crossed the canals, Singel, Herengracht, Keizergracht and finally to Prinsengracht, darkness and rain did nothing to diminish the beauty that is Amsterdam.
I arrived quite early at my favourite restaurant, Cafe de Reiger in Nieuwe Leliestraat but it was already filling up so I went in a grabbed a table. My favourite table where I always like to sit, by a window looking out onto the pretty narrow street outside.
I suppose in London we’d call De Reiger a gastro pub, but it serves top quality restaurant food. My prosecco came with thin melba toast and homemade tapenade to nibble on while I waited for my food. I had the sweet potato soup special followed by a glorious fish special – cod with oyster mushroom risotto, pecorino sauce, yellow beetroot and carrot.
It was stunningly good and very reasonably priced at €21. I had an apple muffin and cinnamon ice cream to follow. De Reiger always present food so beautifully.
I then dawdled over an espresso as long as one can possibly make an espresso last. I didn’t want to leave. The food had been great and the service good and wonderfully friendly. The restaurant was buzzing with happy people; it was a great place to be. But my favourite bar called to me – Cafe Chris (bar and cafe are fairly interchangeable terms in Amsterdam).
Cafe Chris is the oldest bar in the Jordaan district – about 400 years old. It’s the only bar I’m comfortable going into alone at night anywhere. And I go for one drink: old genever.
An early form of gin, it’s always served filled to the brim so that you can’t pick it up but have to lean forward and sip. Going to Cafe Chris for a glass of genever last thing before returning to my hotel and bed has become a ritual. It was the same barman as the first time I went in 2014 and I’ve seen every time since. He said he recognised me. I noticed an old photo for the first time, propped on the bar, though I guess it’s always been there.
This, I was told, was Chris. Apparently for 400 years the name of the bar always changed to a new owner’s. But ‘Chris’ stuck and the bar has been called Cafe Chris since the 1930s. I was ready to make a move when the barman topped up my glass. He’s always friendly in the nicest way; introduces me to locals also sitting at the bar so I always end up having a chat to someone. It’s what bars should be like. Two genevers was definitely enough. I paid just €3. I bid goodnight to the barman and local I’d be talking to and set off back along the canals to my hotel. What a lovely end to my first day.
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